World Toilet Day 2020: Safe and sustainable sanitation in a changing climate

Toilets and sanitation systems have helped transform communities across Indonesia but are increasingly at risk from flooding and rising sea levels.

A girl stands inside her family’s newly constructed toilet outside their home in Tegaldowo village, Central Java Province.
19 November 2020

A simple toilet can save lives. Yet over 19 million people in Indonesia don’t use toilets, defecating instead in fields, bushes, forests, ditches, streets, canals or other open spaces.

Open defecation is not only an affront to dignity, it also facilitates the spread of diseases such as cholera, diarrhoea and dysentery. A quarter of all children under 5 in Indonesia suffer from diarrhoea, which is the leading cause of child mortality in the country.

Through the Government of Indonesia’s sanitation programme, more families now have access to basic sanitation and hygiene facilities in their homes, leading to improved health and nutrition outcomes for children.

But across the country, the effects of climate change are becoming more frequent and intense. Flooding, drought and rising sea levels are threatening sanitation systems – from toilets to septic tanks to treatment plants. To keep communities healthy and functioning, these systems must become more resilient and sustainable to withstand the serious risks posed by the changing climate.

A general view of Tlogopakis village.
A farmer walks along an irrigation channel that was commonly used for open defecation in Tlogopakis village.
A girl runs outside in the rain in Tlogopakis village.

The views from Tlogopakis are breath-taking. The village sits 1,300 metres above sea level in the remote highlands of Central Java Province surrounded by traditional rice terraces and lush mountainsides.

But despite its picturesque surroundings, the environment in the village has not always been safe and healthy. Until recently, many households did not have toilets or basic sanitation facilities, which led some residents to defecate in the open in a nearby irrigation channel. Children in the village often suffered from chronic bouts of diarrhoeal diseases caused by faecal pathogens that entered water sources and agricultural fields and contaminated fly populations.

Wahyu prepares a meal for her son Rizki, 4, in the kitchen in front of a newly constructed toilet in their home.
Wahyu washes her son's clothes in a newly constructed sanitation facility in her home
Wahyu watches her son Rizki, 4, wash his face in a newly built clean water and sanitation facility

In an effort to reduce the rate of stunting among children, the Government of Indonesia has made universal access to sanitation a national development priority. The Ministry of Public Works and Housing began implementing the Sandes project, a rural sanitation programme to construct sanitation facilities for low-income communities and households, with a priority on pregnant women, toddlers, stunted children and persons with disabilities

Wahyu and her family are among the beneficiaries of the programme in Tlogopakis. Like many families in Pekalongan District, their new toilet that was recently built through the programme is also their first. Wahyu says her 4-year-old son Rizki enjoys washing his hands with the running water and oftens splashes it across his face, which always makes her smile.

Eni, 19, holds her 2-year-old son in the kitchen in front of a newly constructed toilet in their home.

Eni and her husband Kuswanto also built a toilet and sanitation facility in their home through the Sandes project. Eni makes brown sugar and Kuswanto works as a labourer, and their combined income barely covers their daily needs, which made it impossible for them to build a toilet before.

"We don't feel embarrassed because the toilet is no longer outside in the open,” she says. “Now that it’s inside the house, it's more comfortable when we need to shower or relieve ourselves."

Children cycle in front of an abandoned house surrounded by tidal flood waters in Tegaldowo village
A man washes clothes in tidal flood waters in Tegaldowo village.

As climate change worsens, many of these sanitation systems are now under increasing threat. In nearby Tegaldowo, a lowland village located along the northern coast of Java island, village head Budi Juniadi remembers the first tidal wave that flooded his community in 2004. Since then, he explains, Tegaldowo has been regularly inundated with floodwaters, a result of rising sea levels due to global warming and land subsidence caused by groundwater extraction that has gradually eroded the coastline.

Although the government built a retaining wall along the coast, the rising sea continues to bring flooding inland to the village. The recurring inundations have destroyed sanitation facilities and caused some families to abandon important hygiene behaviours.  

Muslimin cleans a newly constructed toilet outside his home in Tegaldowo village.
Hanifah holds her 11-month-old daughter Dinda in a newly constructed toilet outside their home.

Muslimin’s home is one of many in Tegaldowo that was inundated by tidal floods for prolonged periods. For two years, he and his family were unable to use their toilet, which led them to defecate in a nearby river, something he admits they were not proud of doing.

This year, a new toilet was built in his home through the government sanitation programme. Muslimin is grateful for their new toilet and always makes sure that it is clean. To protect against future flooding, he used building materials to raise the floor and elevate the new toilet 50 centimetres higher than the previous one.

Rini Ratikasari walks with her 3-year-old daughter Fika outside their home in Tegaldowo village.
Fika, 3, brushes her teeth with her mother Rini Ratikasari in a newly constructed toilet in their home

Rini Ratikasari’s house is still surrounded by the floodwaters, which submerged their previous toilet and caused it to gradually crumble and fall apart. To adapt to these challenges, she and her husband built a temporary latrine outside and bought materials to raise the floor of their house over the last five years.

In July 2020, they constructed a new toilet in their home through the sanitation programme. For the time being, Rini is relieved that her 3-year-old daughter Fika has a place inside the house to wash her hands and brush her teeth.

“Since building the new toilet, we have felt cleaner and more comfortable," she says.

Rini Ratikasari reads to her 3-year-old daughter Fika in front of a newly constructed toilet in their home in Tegaldowo village.
On 6 October 2020, Suhrndi, with the Bekasi Sanitation Department, empties the septic tank of a local resident, for transport to the city’s Domestic Wastewater Management Site.
On 6 October 2020, Suhrndi, with the Bekasi Sanitation Department, empties the septic tank of a local resident, for transport to the city’s Domestic Wastewater Management Site.

In West Java Province, the city of Bekasi has also felt the effects of climate change. Extreme weather events, land subsidence and pollution have contributed to more frequent and severe flooding over the past year, which caused toilets and containment facilities to overflow and increased the risk of transmission of infectious diseases.

In the months following the flooding, the Bekasi Sanitation Department (UPTD PAL) provided free desludging services to help households empty septic tanks and other containment systems. But because the flooding blocked access to many of these areas, the extent of these services remained limited.

To make sanitation services more resilient, the post-disaster response must be complemented with proactive adaptation efforts that minimise the impacts of flooding. This includes making infrastructure more resilient by building climate-proof septic tanks and planning a more adaptive desludging system not limited to trucks. Facilitating access to funding for sanitation infrastructure adaptation must be part of any climate change action plan.

On 6 October 2020, a street scene in Bekasi, Indonesia, a commuter city within the Jakarta metropolitan area with more than 600,000 households and a population of nearly 3 million.